Sunday, September 6, 2009

Learning Log II: "The Paradox of Technology"

I must say I wasn’t expecting to be interested in Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. In my history as a student, most assigned readings became drudgery due to the instructors’ insistence on choosing outdated works simply for their historical impact and not for true relevance. I can’t really say that about this book, however. Norman’s whimsical writing and humor keep the prose from becoming too dry, and it can be argued that his points are even more crucial in the year 2009 than they were when he put them to paper.

An apt example would be his musings on the advancement of technology (Norman 30). Norman uses the example of a digital watch to propose that there must be a limit on how much is crammed into an interface before its practicality is negated by confusion:

“The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.” (31)

Despite his astute recognition of the clutter that new technology brings, I am afraid that Norman may have overlooked a key part of this debate. Maybe he couldn’t have predicted this aspect: as technology becomes more of a standard, the younger generations (like my own) have adjusted to the often-overwhelming options that are presented by new devices. This shift in comfort leaves older generations behind, especially if their job or everyday activities do not require the more advanced technologies.

I’ll use my mother as an example. She works as a clerk at a DMV near our town, and rarely uses computers for more than surfing the web and checking her e-mail. If she wants to watch a DVD or record a television show, she simply asks my father, my sister or I to do it. If she has a computer problem, we’ll fix it. I must note that we’ve tried teaching her these processes, simple as they are for us, but the sheer amount of controls and options are too much for her to handle. She becomes frustrated and blames herself, a common problem Norman identifies in the preface (xx).

I believe Norman would argue that these devices are too complex for her to intuitively use, and thus their designs have failed. This is likely true, but it also lies in the generation gap. It’s a bit ridiculous for Norman to declare, “The paradox of technology should never be used as an excuse” (31). I understand that logic when speaking of poor designs, but the remote we have isn’t poorly designed. It simply presents the necessary options for film enthusiasts like myself and many others who own DVD players. I can’t imagine having a DVD experience without the option to instantly turn on subtitles, skip the scene, rewind or fast-forward at different speeds to catch certain details, etc.

This seems like a problem with no easy solution, but I found an interesting article about how static interfaces are dying. The author proposes that a flexible interface may remedy the generation gap when it comes to things like remotes, GUIs and even keyboards:

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